Environmentalism Is Not Religion

Martin Livermore – an independent consultant with a background in industry, covering a range of science, communication and policy issues – might have been talking about people like me when he wrote this essay for the BBC’s Green Room.

In it, he asks the question, should we not think about humankind first before trying to save other species? So he thinks we are worrying too much about nature and other lifeforms and not worried about our own. He believes we have become too zealous in treading the green path.

He argues that:

“Admittedly, a few key evolutionary advantages make us [humankind] remarkably adaptable and, currently, the ultimate generalist; but it still makes us part of Nature, and our use of human ingenuity is every bit as natural as a spider’s web or a swallow’s migratory pattern.”

This is a point which many use to argue the anthropocentric viewpoint, one that I think is flawed. Let me be postmodernist and argue from within his article.

Mr Livermore gave the example of the conservation efforts for the bison population in Yellowstone by culling wolves. He calls this effort misguided because it led to a bison overpopulation crisis which then caused even more problems. In the end, the wolf culling was stopped in order to bring back a balance to the system. And he is right. The conservationists were going about problem the wrong way.

But has he not here argued a case for nonintervention, rather than one that says conservation is bad? And is it not ironic that it is through human intervention that the human population is where it is today? We are “culling our wolves” to get the human population at its level, through medicine, technology and other means. In other words, we are as foolish as those bison conservationists just mentioned when it comes to human conservation.

And as Mr Livermore has shown we do need the wolves to bring back a balance. The difference is whereas bisons have their wolves to keep them in check the humankind does not – not yet. Like a pendulum the environment will eventually bring things back into balance. It is just that “our predator” has not yet come.

And as for value judgments, yes, who is to say a dormouse is better than a rat… or that a man is better than a dormouse. At the risk of sounding postmodern Mr Livermore has actually sounded modern, in all its negative sense. He has mistakenly understood postmodernism to mean we can no longer hold on to values, when actually postmodern means we must hold on to many values, but none can be the absolutely correct one.

Yes, we are part of nature, as he pointed out, and so may human ingenuity. But so is human shortsightedness and arrogance. And ironically, so is our ability to see beyond tomorrow or this generation. It is possible to view nature in a different way. People, like Mr Livermore, just need to realize that there is not only one pair of rose tinted glasses, but many.

10 thoughts on “Environmentalism Is Not Religion”

  1. Fine.

    “Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone”, said the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. With these words in mind I fight businesses.


  2. I don’t think we are. You’re advocating the individual’s choice of whether or not they adopt practices which are in line with environmental processes. I’m saying: people don’t choose that way because they don’t have to.

    What’s the good of you and I choosing ecologically sensitive ways of life (or all Buddhists even) if a whole bunch of unscrupulous business zealots totally ignore us and our warnings and plunder the earth anyway?


  3. You have misundertstood me.

    I said, “[integrated limiting behaviour] is something each individual must choose… (for themselves)… and not forced upon them”. I left out the ‘for themselves’ bit which made it a bit difficult to understand.

    Essentially we are saying the same thing here.


  4. I must admit that the problem of choice plagues me, and that I cannot consent to your statement that the individual must choose it. Because that’s the case right now, and everyone grants themselves the luxury of *not* choosing the way that is environmentally friendly, or a result of concern for the future.

    The real process that I think needs to occur, is for us to destroy the illusion of choice, which I’ve written about briefly here: http://burnthephoenix.blogspot.com/2005/12/magic-iii-footnote.html


  5. fieldmouse said, “The challenge is to integrate limiting behaviours into the being of every citizen, not impose crude external ones.”

    You are perfectly right. In relating to your post (and our subsequent dialogue) on burnthephoenix it is the buddha-type (not the buddhism-type) of integrated limiting behaviours that we need. It is something each individual must choose, and not forced upon them.

    And that is most definitely a challenge I want to take.


  6. Your comments on the wolf/predator aspect touch on a critical issue, which undermines the foundation of humanism: how can humanism account for the indignity and suffering caused by an overcrowding of humans? It can only take them as individuals, which ensures that it’s myopic; every individual is worth saving, until the quality of life of the entire civilisation is limited.

    Similarly, draconian measures don’t solve anything, because as the overpopulation theorists keep telling us, we’re growing exponentially, so any culling will be eventually dwarfed by growth. That is then not any kind of solution, only a deferral. The challenge is to integrate limiting behaviours into the being of every citizen, not impose crude external ones.


  7. Yes, you are right on all counts. And thank you for your kind words. I look forward to sustaining a dialogue with you and perhaps we will get some practical use and fruitful results from our ideas.


  8. I think we are in agreement on ends. And, you have very good ideas and write in a style that appeals to the reader. That is good.

    My comments are more toward your expressed desire to develop ‘theory’ or ‘vision’ . Mr Livermore is just one of millions, though he seems a good example to use as illustration for readers.

    It is the very anthropocentric view of Mr Livermore and others that demands the problem be framed in social terms – even economic terms. If not, those ensnared in such views are likely to turn a deaf ear. As of this moment, it is exactly those ensnared in such views that must be reached and provided with a palitable re-framing of the problem.

    That re-framing is likely to sound ‘anthroprocentric’ because that is exactly what it would be. As I said, the ‘interventions’ most likely to suceed (short-term) and least likey to result in unexpected outcomes are those at the level of society.

    One way of saying this might be that ‘means’ are anthropocentric, but ‘ends’ should be biocentric. Those are the ‘longer term’ ends. As today’s corporate and politicial elite have a long-term horizon of 2-5 years, obviously there must be intermediate ‘ends’ that are more anthropocentric – aimed at changing human behavior. The outlook for less anthropocentric leadership in the future has improved, but there are still many things that can be done to enhance that outlook.

    Probably what is needed is a set of ‘nested’ ends, with the outermost level being biocentric. The innermost set must need be ‘socially’ centered and short-term. Otherwise, proposals for change are likely to be ignored as coming from ‘tree hugger’ idealists who don’t understand the ‘economic reality’ ;-).

    This is my ‘pragmatist’ streak showing.



  9. The “our predator” I was hinting at was disease. And that is worth a post I think so I’ll leave it here.

    The ‘only solution’ post was very cynical and I wish I hadn’t written it. But I did mean the bit at the end. With or without us the planet will go on. We are just too complacent to see that, because we only see the world revolve our heads.

    Which comes to my point which I really glanced over – that anthropocentrism needs to be replaced by biocentrism. The wikpedia entry I gave literally placed it as an afterthought. So obviously the entry has been written by anthropocentric thinkers.

    Biocentrism views things from an even point of view. For nature does not care about politics or economics (it is only humankind that does). That is why I mentioned ‘man is not better than a dormouse’. In nature’s eye we are equal. I sense Mr Livermore really doesn’t see it this way. I sense that he is anthropocentric.

    And another thing about Mr Livermore – I mentioned that he was an independent consultant with a background in industry, covering a range of science, communication and policy issues for a very specific reason. He has something to protect with talk like this – his job. He is not dissimilar to the man in my “The Reasoning of Reason” post. They each have an agenda.

    And finally, when I wrote “not only one pair of rose tinted glasses, but many” I did mean many as in shape, size, shade. Not ‘many’ as in number for person. So we are in fact in agreement here. Same idea; different metaphor.

    I must say I was sloppy with this post. Sorry.


  10. “The difference is whereas bisons have their wolves to keep them in check the humankind does not – not yet… It is just that “our predator” has not yet come.”

    Well, of course, as a ‘species’, we are our own major predator (until such time as extraterrestial incursion occurs). The rate of predation may escalate at any moment. Then we may get the ‘only solution’ that you discussed in another post. The problem with that solution is that the effects of radiation and nuclear winter may kill all but the cockroaches and a few bacteria.

    It is true that social intervention in ecological niches usually causes more problems than it solves. Do a search when you have time on “operation cat drop”. That glitch in our complex ecological system also began from an intervention – trying to save human lives in Borneo. If you don’t understand complex interrelations, outcomes are highly unpredictable.

    Then again, with no intervention of any type, our environmental problems only multiply. The best strategies for intervention are those within the ‘social’ system. While society is also complex, interventions targeted to reducing rates of environmental degredation seem to have the best probablities for being predictable and ‘contained’.

    But ‘unintended consequences’ are still likely. Consequences such as economic and even ecological dislocation of those members of society least able to escape harm. Hurricane Katrina recently provided a good example of that. Policies that moved improverished human populations into areas where the economic and ecological conseqences of interventions called ‘levies’ were devastating.

    Your observation that no values can be ‘correct’ is right on target. Even intervention and non-intervention must be balanced – the middle way.

    One last thought: glasses come in more colors than ‘rose’.


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